ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
Michael Steele offered a forceful defense of his two years at the helm of the Republican National Committee on Monday, focusing on his party’s success in the 2010 midterm elections while promising to do “better” if committee members elect him to another term.
"My record stands for itself,” Steele said. “We won.”
Steele shared a debate stage with four other candidates vying for the chairmanship, including one of his former confidants, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Wisconsin GOP and until recently, the RNC’s general counsel.
Priebus has emerged as a leading contender for Steele’s job and at the forum, organized by Americans for Tax Reform, The Daily Caller, and the Susan B. Anthony List, the Wisconsin Republican pledged to be an “absolute workhorse” for the party.
“I’m not running against anybody,” he added.
Most of the candidates avoided taking direct aim at Steele, but rather leveled cautious criticism about the state of the party. They all emphasized the importance of being the party’s fundraiser-in-chief if elected, especially since whoever wins will inherit an RNC saddled with millions in debt.
Former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner came closest to attacking Steele outright, saying near the start of the event that the RNC was "broken and needs to be fixed."
Another candidate, former Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis who ran against Steele for chairman and lost two years ago, said his first priority would be “rebuilding the credibility” of the RNC’s major donor program.
In his conversations with top-dollar Republicans funders, Anuzis said: “I was very surprised to hear that almost all of them were willing and able to come back.”
Anuzis called himself “a movement conservative” and said he had the political and fundraising skills to steer the RNC through what he predicted would be “some of the toughest times.”
But questions about Steele’s management of the committee loomed large over the 90-minute debate held at the National Press Club in Washington, and at one point Steele was forced to defend his shift away from the RNC’s traditional 72-hour voter turnout operation.
“We may have done it differently, but we found other ways to get resources,” he said, adding: “The idea that we didn’t fully fund it is really kind of a misnomer, ‘cause we did.”
But other candidates were not satisfied: Priebus called for a “fully funded” get out the vote effort as did former Bush administration official Maria Cino and Wagner, who once served as ambassador to Luxembourg.
“Seventy-two hours doesn’t cut it anymore, we’ve got 32 states that have early voting,” Wagner said. “Those political efforts must start much, much earlier, but most of all they have to be fully funded.”
When the five candidates were not weighing in on the internal dynamics of the RNC, they were fielding questions on a variety of social and political issues. All five, for example, agreed that the national party should stay out of primary fights in the states.
All five were also asked to name the Republican Party’s greatest failure of the last decade. Priebus said: “Not living up to the promises of out platform,” while Cino drew applause for citing the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill.
Steele, who has fewer public pledges of support from RNC committee members than Priebus, said if re-elected he would work to promote “strong, independent and engaged state parties.”
The 168 members of the RNC will vote for a new chairman on Jan. 14 at the party’s winter meeting in Washington.